The authenticity of joy
Life-affirming, revitalising, attention grabbing – and a really good laugh too: joy is the defining emotion of TikTok’s Creators, community and users. When the funnest party in town is open to anyone, here’s how brands can show up as their realest and most authentic selves.
TikTok began with the simplest expressions of joy: dancing and the ecstatic moving of the body; lip-syncing, a form of speaking and the simple pleasure in mimicking sounds. And all of the joy on TikTok is enhanced by the power of music and the spoken word. These are among the earliest ways humans learnt, copied and communicated, and they’re now appearing in new forms in the digital world. The communality of TikTok builds this joy, in the endless recreating and remaking of the sounds and routines that others are simultaneously creating and performing, the thrill of being part of a trend and of becoming part of something bigger than yourself. To be joyful is uniquely human and, these days, joy finds its digital home on TikTok.
Against the recent backdrop of isolation, sad circumstances and devastating news cycles, TikTok has become a place to express joy, and to experience the connection and unity in expressing it with others. Joy itself is uniquely viral and infectious, proven to spread from person to person in a way that unhappiness doesn’t. And as a cohesive, connected, communal emotion, joy itself is perfect for the endless Duetting, Stitching and Trending sounds of TikTok. Where other platforms fuel anger, jealousy and status anxiety, TikTok serves up entertainment. With 73 per cent of TikTok’s 100m EU users saying they felt happier after logging on, the content TikTok serves up – and the way it makes us feel – is a paradigm shift and a leap into joy at an entirely new scale.
As TikTok grows, the multiplicity and dimensions of the joy it provides has shifted, embracing all forms of light entertainment and reflecting the almost infinite diversity of human life. There are comedic skits and camera tricks, magic acts and epic stunts and rap battles, and transformational tales, intimate personal stories and humorous cultural commentary. Creators’ interpretation of what joy is is endlessly varied, but what connects them, as you’ll see in the rest of this issue, is that creators felt that they couldn’t really be themselves anywhere else – until they found TikTok. In fact, three in four of all TikTok’s users say they feel comfortable expressing themselves on the platform, a freedom of expression that enables more joy.
Nothing is more real than joy
One reason this is both important and contemporary is that on TikTok, as in real life, joy cannot be faked or performed, in the same way that a posed photo might hide insecurities or unhappiness while also provoking those feelings in others. That’s not to say everyone on TikTok is perfectly happy at all times. Yet, and perhaps paradoxically, there is joy in confiding vulnerability, seeking help for mental illness and showing off the fragility of what it means to be human.
And, simultaneously, the comments on TikTok are more likely to reveal the warmer side of anonymous digital humanity – to be supportive, encouraging and funny to a stranger instead of trolling and tearing them down. In fact, comments are a huge part of TikTok – users will often say, “I scrolled directly to the comments” in order to build in other stories of human experience, to offer advice and suggestions, and/or simply tell someone that they look great. A viewer may sometimes brace on seeing a particularly awkward TikTok, only to find that the comments are overwhelmingly positive, with commentators community-policing those who choose to be unkind. Being able to release content that will be embraced instead of judged is one key to unlocking the joy at the heart of TikTok.
New joy, new authenticity
There is joy above all in being authentic on TikTok. In an age where authenticity has come to mean gritty realism or emotional over-exposure, TikTok has brought back to light other parts of an authentic human experience – the fantasy of escapism, the silliness of the unexpected and the desire to laugh at even the worst moments. With the context of domestic surroundings and others always coming into the frame, we see grandmothers shuffling into bikini shots, strangers joining in dances, pets jumping on the sofa and people falling over, the same moments told from multiple angles and bedroom mirrors revealing rooms full of mess. These un-airbrushed expressions of authenticity create intimacy and stifle shame, which is the inhibitor of joy, its deadly enemy. Authenticity on TikTok welcomes a fuller and more complete version of life, where good and bad moments can co-exist, dispensing with the claustrophobia of perfectionism.
And there are more and more expressions of this authentic new joy emerging all the time on the platform. While the viral-audio nature of TikTok trends may at first seem baffling to outsiders, even these mundane moments can be reinterpreted into communal points of joy. Creators on TikTok describe fancying cartoon characters while boiling eggs, arguing over restaurant bills, enjoying soup and recounting fake tanning mishaps with the same degree of lightness and humour, turning awkward, embarrassing or shameful moments into joyful ones.
One of TikTok’s USPs is that its audio framework enhances this self-expression: a story you perhaps wouldn’t tell because it feels too everyday or too sombre finds its punchline in a contrasting audio track of a TikTok. Even the tragedies of break-up or bereavement can be transmuted into humour and self-knowledge on TikTok. Millions of views and thousands of comments affirm that other people have “been there, done that” too (as Pitbull puts it in another viral TikTok trend), offering a shared interpretation of joy.
Brands can fill the joy gap
Authenticity may be second nature to brands, but for them to embrace joy may sound strange, even frivolous. However, the 2019 IPA report described a collapse in the creative effectiveness of awarded campaigns and issued a warning about the direction brands were heading in. With a bias towards short-term activations, brands are “changing the very nature of the type of advertising we are generally exposed to: instead of emotionally engaging human stories that seek to charm and captivate, we are seeing more didactic, literal presentations that seek to prompt us into action”4. That’s why for brands seeking to engage emotionally and influence culture, turning to the lighter side of life provides a new path forward.
It may not be news that the desire of brands to become part of culture and influence the world has led to the growing embrace of brand purpose. But has this rush to find and support a noble cause – no matter how tenuously connected to a product – also created a “joy gap”? Pandemic advertising extolled the heroes of the fight against the virus, and brands shifted to a more serious, sober tone to capture the prevailing mood. But on TikTok, even the nurses were dancing – perhaps because, rather than in spite of, the circumstances. In uncertain times, joy becomes more important, not less.
Marketers know that emotion drives creative effectiveness, with 55 per cent of IPA-winning campaigns citing emotion as their main creative strategy. And one of the strongest emotional drivers of all is joy. In the age of TikTok there is a place for joy on a business plan, for creating joy as a communications objective and for joy as a measurable effect. With a meaningful transfer from positive content to a positive brand impression, joy can unlock long-term brand building, brand preference and sales.
Old-school advertising understood its purpose was to entertain, not dictate, hence the much repeated TV adage that “the ads used to be better than the programmes”.
Returning to the joy of entertainment and the kaleidoscopic new manifestation of joy epitomised by TikTok, brands can look within to discover the delightful parts of their product, experience, advertising and actions, and then bring forth that joy to find success on the platform.
1. Harvard, 2008
2. Marketing Science EU Understanding Authenticity, Happiness and Joy research 2021, conducted by Flamingo Group
3. TikTok Marketing Science US Authenticity study 2020 conducted by Nielsen
4. Field IPA report 2019
5. IPA, 2018